Mammography-oncogenecity at low doses

Geoffrey Heyes, Andrew Mill, Monty Charles

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

41 Citations (Scopus)


Controversy exists regarding the biological effectiveness of low energy x-rays used for mammography breast screening. Recent radiobiology studies have provided compelling evidence that these low energy x-rays may be 4.42 +/- 2.02 times more effective in causing mutational damage than higher energy x-rays. These data include a study involving in vitro irradiation of a human cell line using a mammography x-ray source and a high energy source which matches the spectrum of radiation observed in survivors from the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Current radiation risk estimates rely heavily on data from the atomic bomb survivors, and a direct comparison between the diagnostic energies used in the UK breast screening programme and those used for risk estimates can now be made. Evidence highlighting the increase in relative biological effectiveness (RBE) of mammography x-rays to a range of x-ray energies implies that the risks of radiation-induced breast cancers for mammography x-rays are potentially underestimated by a factor of four. A pooled analysis of three measurements gives a maximal RBE (for malignant transformation of human cells in vitro) of 4.02 +/- 0.72 for 29 kVp (peak accelerating voltage) x-rays compared to high energy electrons and higher energy x-rays. For the majority of women in the UK NHS breast screening programme, it is shown that the benefit safely exceeds the risk of possible cancer induction even when this higher biological effectiveness factor is applied. The risk/benefit analysis, however, implies the need for caution for women screened under the age of 50, and particularly for those with a family history ( and therefore a likely genetic susceptibility) of breast cancer. In vitro radiobiological data are generally acquired at high doses, and there are different extrapolation mechanisms to the low doses seen clinically. Recent low dose in vitro data have indicated a potential suppressive effect at very low dose rates and doses. Whilst mammography is a low dose exposure, it is not a low dose rate examination, and protraction of dose should not be confused with fractionation. Although there is potential for a suppressive effect at low doses, recent epidemiological data, and several international radiation risk assessments, continue to promote the linear no-threshold (LNT) model. Finally, recent studies have shown that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is more sensitive than mammography in detecting invasive breast cancer in women with a genetic sensitivity. Since an increase in the risk associated with mammographic screening would blur the justification of exposure for this high risk subgroup, the use of other (non-ionising) screening modalities is preferable.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)A123-A132
JournalJournal of Radiological Protection
Issue number2A
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2009


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